In 2016, in a debate organized by the Brontë Society, a panel of four writers discussed the relative merits of Jane Eyre (see SF no. 40) and Charlotte Brontë’s last novel, Villette. When an audience vote was taken, the earlier and better-known book won, but only by a small majority; the two writers defending Villette had been eloquent in its praise. As one of them said, you often come to appreciate it later in life. If Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice, Villette is Persuasion.
The general reading public has always voted unequivocally for the bestselling Jane Eyre.
Not only is Villette a darker book, but the popular image of the Brontës does not readily associate them with a continental girls’ boarding school. And I must admit that Villette’s heroine Lucy Snowe initially failed to engage me, perhaps because I was too young when I first read it.
Charlotte’s publisher George Smith, who had brought her fame overnight with Jane Eyre, had his own doubts about Villette when he received the manuscript. For one thing, he feared that readers would take a dim view of Lucy for being in love with two men: halfway through the book she transfers her affections from the handsome young Englishman Graham Bretton to Paul Emmanuel (‘Monsieur Paul’), a fellow-teacher at Madame Beck’s Pensionnat in the town of Villette.
One aspect Smith did not comment on, however, but which can hardly have escaped his notice was that Graham Bretton was closely modelled on himself. For a time, the 36-year-old Charlotte was attracted to her charming young publisher, who was her host on her trips to London.
Did she feel any discomfort at the thought that as Smith rea
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In 2016, in a debate organized by the Brontë Society, a panel of four writers discussed the relative merits of Jane Eyre (see SF no. 40) and Charlotte Brontë’s last novel, Villette. When an audience vote was taken, the earlier and better-known book won, but only by a small majority; the two writers defending Villette had been eloquent in its praise. As one of them said, you often come to appreciate it later in life. If Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice, Villette is Persuasion.The general reading public has always voted unequivocally for the bestselling Jane Eyre. Not only is Villette a darker book, but the popular image of the Brontës does not readily associate them with a continental girls’ boarding school. And I must admit that Villette’s heroine Lucy Snowe initially failed to engage me, perhaps because I was too young when I first read it. Charlotte’s publisher George Smith, who had brought her fame overnight with Jane Eyre, had his own doubts about Villette when he received the manuscript. For one thing, he feared that readers would take a dim view of Lucy for being in love with two men: halfway through the book she transfers her affections from the handsome young Englishman Graham Bretton to Paul Emmanuel (‘Monsieur Paul’), a fellow-teacher at Madame Beck’s Pensionnat in the town of Villette. One aspect Smith did not comment on, however, but which can hardly have escaped his notice was that Graham Bretton was closely modelled on himself. For a time, the 36-year-old Charlotte was attracted to her charming young publisher, who was her host on her trips to London. Did she feel any discomfort at the thought that as Smith read the manuscript he was also reading her feelings about him (including her astute assessment of his limitations)? We don’t know, but we do know that she had a history of drawing heavily on real people and places in her fiction. For the cast of Shirley, written between Jane Eyre and Villette, she took inspiration from local curates, the family of an old schoolfriend and her sister Emily. In Villette, for the character of the schoolmaster in whom Lucy Snowe finds a soulmate Charlotte looked no further than the Belgian schoolteacher who had tutored her during her stay in Brussels some years earlier, in 1842–3: Constantin Heger, the man with whom she became infatuated. More than that, she put into Villette just about every element of her two years at the Pensionnat Heger, run by Zoë Heger with help from her husband Constantin. Charlotte went there, with Emily, to study French, but ended up also teaching English to pay for her keep. The teaching was a trial, but French literature tutorials with Heger were intoxicating. Without actually naming Brussels and Belgium as such in the novel (Brussels becomes Villette, ‘little town’, and Belgium Labassecour, ‘the farmyard’), she poured into it her contempt for Belgian schoolgirls (referred to as the ‘swinish multitude’); her dislike of Mme Heger, whose personality suggested at least some traits of Mme Beck, Lucy Snowe’s formidable employer; and her intense feelings for Constantin Heger, transformed into the volatile M. Paul. There is no lack of fun and vivacity in the book, but the sombre mood of its most moving passages reflects that of Charlotte in her second year in Brussels, when she returned without Emily. She was homesick and saw less and less of Heger, who had been the main reason for her return. Remaining alone at the school in the long vacation, she fell into a depression. Back home in Yorkshire a few months later, she spilled out her longing for Heger in letters to him that went largely unanswered. An unsatisfied craving for love, solitude, depression: constants throughout Charlotte’s life, they came to a head in Brussels. Moreover, Villette was written, almost a decade after the Brussels experience, at a time when Charlotte was once again, to use a phrase of our day, ‘in a dark place’. The success of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in 1847 had been closely followed by the death of all three of her siblings. Alone at Haworth Parsonage with her elderly father, she was facing a future as a lonely woman as well as a single one. My second reading of Villette took place at the stage of life when Persuasion starts to strike chords. Besides this, by now I was familiar with Charlotte’s biography. Not that any biographical knowledge is necessary for a full appreciation of Villette. We readers know we must be wary of reading fiction as the author’s life. Lucy Snowe wasn’t Charlotte Brontë in all respects any more than M. Paul was M. Heger. Even so, Villette is the most autobiographical of Charlotte’s novels. By the time she wrote it, she had quite a lot more emotional experience to draw on, much of it painful, than when she dashed off Jane Eyre at white heat, in a few months, at the age of 30. But for the mise en scène of this work of her maturity she went back in time to the foreign adventure on which she’d embarked with such youthful hopefulness. The Brontës’ novels and their passionate protagonists are generally associated with the open moors, but an urban backdrop and the claustrophobia of a Brussels boarding school form a powerful setting for Lucy Snowe’s inner drama. Charlotte complained of Haworth as a remote spot where she felt cut off; life was going on somewhere else, passing her by. In Brussels she knew what it was to live in a city yet spoke of being ‘isolated in the midst of numbers’, lonely in the heart of a capital. Not only was she usually cooped up in the classroom, but the Hegers’ school lay in a quiet enclave just below and removed from the bustle of the royal quarter. As does Mme Beck’s. In her solitary hours of leisure Lucy can hear the rumble of carriages on their way to ballrooms and theatres. Occasionally she ventures out into that brightly lit world of concerts and plays with Graham Bretton, but mostly she is confined within the school walls.
In winter I sought the long classes, and paced them fast to keep myself warm . . . In summer it was never quite dark, and then I went upstairs to my own quarter of the long dormitory, opened my own casement . . . and leaning out, looked forth upon the city beyond the garden, and listened to band-music from the park or the palace-square, thinking meantime my own thoughts, living my own life in my own still, shadow-world.At times, this shadow-world becomes a very dark and lonely place indeed. Alone at the Pensionnat in the summer vacation, Lucy starts hallucinating, seeing ‘the ghastly white beds . . . turning into spectres’ in the deserted dormitory. In this state of mind, she is tormented by the ‘insufferable thought’ that she is not loved. In the long weeks of the summer of 1843, Charlotte suffered a virtual nervous breakdown. But Lucy’s descent into hell drew on more than this Brussels experience. On sleepless nights at the Parsonage in the years after the death of her sisters, Charlotte seemed to hear their voices in the wind, crying to be let in. And the fear of meeting loved ones after death only to find them changed and indifferent towards her was one that haunted her. That summer in Brussels, Charlotte, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, was prompted by despair to persuade a Catholic priest in the cathedral to hear her confession, writing to Emily: ‘I took a fancy to change myself into a Catholic and go and make a real confession to see what it was like.’ The episode provided one of the most highly charged in Villette.
Any opening for appeal to God was as welcome to me then as bread to one in extremity of want. I knelt down with others on the stone pavement. It was an old solemn church, its pervading gloom not gilded but purpled by light shed through stained glass . . . The priest within the confessional . . . quietly inclined his ear to my lips . . .Lucy’s opening words to the priest are the very ones spoken by Charlotte in St Gudule’s in Brussels: ‘Mon père, je suis protestante.’ This priest turns up later as M. Paul’s own confessor, Père Silas, who keeps a suspicious watch on his growing friendship with the Protestant Lucy and takes care to inform her of M. Paul’s fidelity to the memory of his early love, who died soon after taking the veil when their marriage was forbidden. Mme Beck’s Pensionnat and the Catholic city of Villette, with their stories of nuns and their spying, omnipresent priests, are as Gothic in their way as Thornfield Hall. The real Pensionnat was on ground formerly owned by a guild of archers; a half-buried slab in its garden was said to conceal the entrance to an underground passage, an escape route in times of siege. The fictional school in Villette has formerly been a convent. It still has a resident nun, or rather the ghost of one. Legend has it that a slab in the garden is ‘the portal of a vault, imprisoning . . . the bones of a girl whom a monkish conclave of the drear middle ages had here buried alive for some sin against her vow’. This spectral nun is sighted by Lucy at moments of crisis – as when she buries her letters from Graham Bretton who, she knows, will never have more than friendly feelings for her. ‘You are good, you are beautiful; but you are not mine,’ she tells him mentally after interring the letters at the foot of Methuselah, the ancient pear tree. In Haworth, letters were Charlotte’s link with the outside world. Those from Heger and, later, George Smith were also food for her emotional hunger, and days waiting for them were days of starvation. Heger stopped writing, and tore up her frantic appeals to him (stitched back together by his wife, they can be seen today in the British Library); George Smith married someone younger, prettier and richer than her. Graham Bretton marries exquisite, fairy-like Paulina, but Lucy likes to think that a ‘little closet’ in his heart is reserved for ‘quiet Lucy Snowe’. The novel reverses the chronological order of the two relationships that informed it. Charlotte’s infatuation with Heger came years before her flirtatious friendship with Smith, but in Villette, after the symbolic burial of her love for Graham in the walled garden, Lucy soon finds herself, on summer evenings, deep in conversation in its allées with her irascible colleague M. Paul. As friendship flowers into love, Mme Beck’s garden becomes as enchanted a spot as Thornfield Hall’s, the scent of M. Paul’s cigar in the evening air as heady as Mr Rochester’s. There’s no mad wife in an attic to keep them apart, and M. Paul’s long-lost first love turns out to be no impediment after all. But unlike Jane Eyre, Villette offers no happy ever after. In the three years of M. Paul’s absence overseas, however, before the storm at sea that closes the book, letters once again provide nourishment. Those Lucy receives from him, she tells us, made those three years ‘the happiest of her life’. Like Lucy, Charlotte briefly found happiness, in her case in marriage at the age of 38 to an unlikely-seeming suitor, her father’s curate. She died in pregnancy nine months later. Lucy successfully runs her own school and lives on until her hair is white under her cap, ‘like snow beneath snow’. Charlotte didn’t even make it to her thirty-ninth birthday, but in spirit, like Lucy, she was a survivor. She put into Villette not just her pain but the qualities that fortified her to soldier on through loneliness and loss.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 61 © Helen MacEwan 2019
About the contributor
Helen MacEwan is a translator and former teacher who lives in Brussels. Her books include The Brontës’ Brussels, an illustrated guide to Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in the Belgian capital, and Through Belgian Eyes: Charlotte Brontë’s Troubled Brussels Legacy.